Is God the master of time, or is time the master of God?

This post was initially written as an essay for a History of Science and Religion course that I took in college, as such please forgive the length.

In the beginning was the universe. Before and after that point the debate gets messy. Was there a pre-beginning? If so, what was there, God? Aliens? Other Universes? Eventually the Earth comes along, some period of time later humans crept up and asked the question, who controls this crazy place? God, or time? In order to address this question this essay will look at the views of society, science, and the bible in terms of time, and God.

The renaissance was a time of great intellectual progress in Europe. The rediscovery of Greek and Roman classics restored to man much of his lost understanding. Seeing how far they had seemingly fallen, the renaissance man declared the period from the fall of Rome to the present the “Dark Ages.” Determined to prevent this from happening again educational centers were established to preserve the classics and educate the elite in their lore. However, centuries later in a period called the enlightenment man discovered that on many key points the ancients were wrong. Perhaps the key error lay in the ancients cosmology. Aristotelian thought, refined by Ptolemy, held that the earth was the center of the universe surrounded by perfect concentric spheres containing all the heavenly bodies. First Copernicus and later Galileo Galilei discovered through use of modern scientific techniques, that it was in the fact the sun that was the center of the universe (this was later revised placing the sun merely at the center of the solar system rather than the whole universe.) In light of discoveries such as this the people of the enlightenment looked back in history and saw that they had surpassed the ancients in terms of their understanding of the nature of the universe. The logical conclusion of this realization was the idea of progress. Progress was, and is, best embodied by the classic mantra “Every day we’re getting better in every way.” The driving force behind progress was time. Suddenly all that was required for improvement was time, in time everything improves. Progress still permeates our culture to such a degree that many people cannot even entertain in their mind the idea that “Progress” may not be a law of reality but rather a construction of human reasoning, an abstraction. Oddly enough the idea of progress is firmly rejected in the field of ecology, an exception that will be discussed later in this essay. Time as the prime mover of the universe was further entrenched in western thought by Isaac Newton. Through his science the whole of physics was quantified, systematized, and demystified (many of his rules would later be ruled inadequate, and a much smaller number wrong.) With calculus he provided the means to determine the rate of change vs time. The Newtonian universe is sometimes referred to as a clockwork universe. The very analogy used to describe this highly mechanical universe is one of a clock, an image which instantly calls time, and therefore progress into one’s mind. However time had not yet supplanted God as master of the universe in the minds of the people.

God was acknowledged as master of the universe throughout most all of western history up until the late eighteenth century. Discoveries in the field of geology indicated that the earth was much older than previously believed. Beginning with the Comte du Buffon of France in 1779 people began to experiment to determine the age of the earth. Previous to these discoveries Archbishop James Ussher, in 1654 had calculated the age of the earth by using the geneologies listed in Genesis. The very precision of his dating, allegedly down to the minute, underscored the great disparity between literal biblical explanation and scientific thought. Short earth disciples saw disasters, floods, earthquakes, volcanos, etc, as being responsible for the earth’s defining characteristics such as mountains, and canyons, as well as the shaping of the earth’s continents and oceans. The credit for many such events was given to God. Long earth disciples held that the shaping of earth has been a slow gradual process, where the credit for all progress is given to the unstoppable march of time. The long earth theory continues to get longer as well, due to the astronomically high unlikelihood of the world randomly developing as it has. As such the long earth theory has progressed, while short earth theory has remained stagnant claiming the same ~6,000 year lifespan that it did centuries ago. Clearly the theory that bows to progress must be correct, for progress and time are the new God, right?

In Charles Darwin’s text “On the origin of species by means of natural selection or the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life,” Darwin puts forth the idea, based on careful observation, that the state of biology is not fixed, nor has it ever been, but rather that it is a dynamic process. Having written before Mendel, Darwin had no concept of genetics, and thus no viable mechanism for his changes. As such the passing on of mutations to offspring was later overlayed onto his theory. Additionally the idea of progress was attached to Darwinism. Evolution, a progressive word, was the name given to Darwin’s unknown mechanism. The idea of devolution was swept under the table in the minds of the people, that would imply that regression is possible, and overthrow the mantra “Every day we’re getting better in every way.” Time again is the prime mover. Evolution is supported with mathematical theory which says that “given an infinite amount of time anything with a finite chance of occuring, will.” This handy little idea allows evolution and its attendant beliefs, especially life from non life, to override all questions regarding its extreme unlikelihood, for with a large enough span of time anything, with any likelihood of happening will happen.

The Big Bang was first theorized by a Belgian priest, Georges Lemaître, in 1927, and later supported by observation and experimentation by Edwin Hubble. The theory provided a rare link between science and religion, by placing in the hands of science a momentous starting moment for the universe, much like religion’s first day of creation. However unlike religion’s 6 days, the Big Bang needed somewhere between 9 and 10 billion years to develop into the universe we currently enjoy. This 9 to 10 billion year span allows, and accounts for the near infinite amount of time required by evolution and a long earth history. Time once more is the prime mover bringing us from the Big Bang to today.

Einstein heralded a new era in physics, an era in which the Newtonian universe ceased to be authoritative and became merely an expedient model. Between special relativity, the second law of thermodynamics, and the atomic bomb, progress and time faced a crisis. The second law of thermodynamics put a cap on relevant time by introducing the world to heat death. The atom bomb seemed to signal that not all progress is good, and special relativity signaled that absolutes were dead, everything, even time, was relative. Quantum theory, via Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle proclaimed that science was not the impartial observer that had long been assumed, but rather that measurement, at least on the quantum level actually changed the data being gathered. All of this has the potential to turn science, and society on its ear, and indeed we have not yet seen the full effects of these discoveries. But we have latched onto the one constant still accepted as constant, the speed of light. With it we can measure distance, and time. With time being restored as absolute, in an absolute, rather than relative, sense time can go back to being the prime mover. Perhaps the innocence regarding time’s loving nature, and philanthropic tendencies are gone, but time itself keeps its rank.

We now come to the old God, that is to say, God. Time says God couldn’t created the universe because he moves too fast. Time says God couldn’t have created the earth with apparent age, because thats just cheating. Time says God couldn’t have stopped time for Joshua’s army, because nothing can stop time. Time says God has no privileged place in the universe since nothing can escape the bounds of time, specifically the speed of a photon. So what does God say?

Genesis 1:3-5 reads: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.” (NIV) According to this passage God, via the seperation of light and dark, making the first day, created time. Before this point there was no time, on this point, Stephen Hawking would agree. When asked what was before the Big Bang he dismissed the question saying it was like asking whats north of the North Pole. 2 Peter 3:8 says: “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” (NIV) This passage would seem to indicate that time has no hold on God, that the restrictions time places on us are not placed on God.

Suppose for a moment what would happen if one were to build a terrarium for various samples of flora and fauna. The creatures within would be bound by certain rules, certain laws. The walls would be inescapable, the jostling of transportation unstoppable. However to you the creator of this enclosure a different set of rules apply. Depending on the construction methods used the walls are not an insurmountable barrier, the clasp is not an unsolvable puzzle, the jostling is easily halted. In a similar respect it is not inconceivable that the creator of our habitat, would also be unbound by the rules and laws that define our existence.

Interestingly there is at least one arena where the flow of time is ignored by western man, and progress is denied. The break from the status quo by ecology seems to be worth considering in this discussion. In ecology people seek to restore and maintain the “natural state” of an ecosystem. It would seem that this natural state is as much an abstraction as the idea that it denies, progress. Aldo Leopold referred to an “ecological ring-around-the-rosy.” This comment dealt with an ecosystems ability to adapt to new influences with the same results as in the past. This seems to indicate a cyclical view of time, as opposed to the traditional linear view. The analysis of history often adopts a cyclical view of things, as do many other areas of human interest. Perhaps we are on the edge of a paradigm shift away from a linear concept of time, and progress. If so will we see a change in scientific thought as well? Or perhaps we already have, with the burgeoning idea that from the condensed ashes of one universe another Bangs into existence, much like the mythical phoenix. Perhaps in thirty years the points raised in this paper will be mote, since no one will be “foolish” enough to believe in a universe run by time.

In this world, in this life, I cannot escape time, and I do not deny that progress is a possible result of the flow of time. But I do say that progress as a universal law is an abstraction born of man’s ego, as is the assumption that God is shackled by the same chains that bind us to this mortal existence.

Resources

Davies, Paul: “God and the New Physics,” 1983

Gospel Communications International: http://www.biblegateway.com/

Leopold, Aldo: “A Sand County Almanac,” 1966

Lindberg and Numbers: “God and Nature,” 1986

Wikimedia Foundation: http://en.wikipedia.org/

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